My father grew up to be a revolutionary socialist by the time he was seventeen. He wanted to end capitalism, and storm the Bastille of finance. Then he grew a Mohawk, and started university.
He ended up in the heart of capitalism of the 1980s, London, and at the vanguard of it – the London School of Economics. That’s where he met my mother, who attended another university, but who moved in overlapping circles.
I mention this because Mark brought up the long-standing issue of having children. He wants a whole football team. I’m hesitant if I even want one. I’m nudging toward one or two because I know it would make Mark happy. I think he would be a great father. What doubt I have is that I suspect my own fatherhood potential. Hence the opening anecdote about my own father.
As soon as I was out of the house, safely deposited with my aunt here in England, my parents filed for divorce. Looking back, I suspect that the last ten years of their marriage was only one of convenience. They tolerated each other, and didn’t hate being around each other. I just don’t think they loved each other any longer.
They were also distant towards me. In a way, and this is only a suspicion I have, when Ellie died, being a loving parent became too risky. There was too much potential for pain in it. It was healthier to be detached, aloof, and distant.
Now and then I get a message from my mother. It’s always a text, not a phone call. Not when it comes to this specific task. The text is always a question. Could I go and see Ellie? Oh, if she rang about some other matter, and then thought of it, she can mention it. But if she specifically wants to ask me to go, she texts.
Ellie, or Elizabeth, died when I was six years old. She was nine. For most of her life she suffered a disease that made her blood clot because her red blood cells were malformed. They got stuck in her veins, which lead to burst veins and clotting and pain. That condition also apparently increases the susceptibility for leukemia, and that is what killed her.
The few memories I have of Ellie is of this small kid in a too big hospital bed. I wasn’t big myself, so everything is exaggerated in my head. These memories are about smells, about sounds, and light. Strong detergents and the smell of fear. Or that creepy, underlying smell that exist in all hospitals: that of death, misery and pain leaked out through vomit, piss, and shit. I can’t actually remember directly what she looked like. Half of my memories of her are, most likely, fake – exaggerations added to afterwards.
Ellie died before we moved to Sweden, so she’s buried in Sussex. It’s a beautiful cemetery that’s very calm. At the end of one row somewhere in that cemetery is a headstone and a few dislocated vases with some faded flowers. The headstone has her full name, her birth date, and her death date. There’s also a sorrowful line of poetry on it. Nothing religious – remember, this is my mother we’re talking about.
Now and then, my mother texts me to ask if I can go and see to the grave. It’s the logical thing to do, because I’m here in England and both mum and dad are in Sweden. Before I moved here, and while I lived with mum and dad, mum asked Auntie to do this. But now that I’m here, it’s more reasonable to ask me.
Over the years I’ve been there a number of times. Before I got my driver’s license, Auntie used to drive me there. After Mark got his license, he drove me. Now, I sometimes go there myself. I always think it’s a bit unfair to drag Mark along – although sometimes he wants to come.
The ritual is always the same. I go there, clean up the plot, take a picture with my phone, and then I send it to mum. She’ll thank me in another text. And then I can sit there and contemplate why I’m the one alive, and she’s not. I can wonder what it would be like if the roles were reversed.
It puts me in a funny mood, all the time. I got the good genes. She didn’t. Yet we’re from the same set of parents. It wouldn’t have taken much for me to get what she had too. Sickle cell anemia isn’t a gender based disease. Both sexes can get it. It just needs both sets of parents to carry the genes, and for the universe to conspire to fuse those genes together.
Yesterday I did this, and then Mark started to talk about becoming a parents, and I can see how much it means to him. I’m more sceptical about the whole thing, and… I worry that I won’t be a very good parents, because I don’t know how to do it. I worry that I don’t have a good example from my own life about how to do it. Should I emulate my parents and be this aloof figure who keeps a distance from a child?
My father settled down, and exchanged the torn denim for a business suit, and eventually (grudgingly) accepted capitalism. He stopped listening to Ska-music, cut the Mohawk, and started a job that would make him a middle manager of a bunch of accountants in a large industrial multinational.
Really good salary. Really good career advancement. So far from the Mohawk-wearing ska-listening Dad of the 1980s. Now he drives a Jaguar in Stockholm, and was even head-hunted once to lead a start-up through its establishment phase before he returned to the safe bosom of the multinational. Doesn’t it seem like a capitulation? “I need to stop faffing about and think of the family.”
Mum is a chemist, not a pharmaceutical one. She leads a research team for a German multinational, and has her own lab and files patents every year, and publish in the journals. She too makes a good living.
They’ve never lived in excess. I guess a few strands of their revolutionary past linger. Dad drove a Volvo as I grew up. We lived in modest houses. They put a lot of their wages into savings for me and Ellie. And then when Ellie died, I “inherited” all of hers. They continued to save for me.
But they never really engaged with me. Classic example; on the day we were supposed to drive my stuff to England, before I started college, he was late because he went into the office and worked for hours. That’s on the day I moved out of their house, and left the country. He always seemed to love the job more than us, in the end.
On the other hand, I’d love to do a better job of parenting. I’d love to make mum a granny, something she doesn’t think she’ll be with a gay son. I’d love to be a part of a family like the one Mark grew up in. I think Mark has all the good role-model genes here, and I want to see him happy. Being a parent is one of the things that will make him the happiest.
It’s just that I doubt my own ability to be the supportive co-parent that he thinks I’d be. I worry that I’d become like my dad and escape to whatever job I hold then. If dad can go from a Mohawk-punker to a greying accountant, then what compromises will I make that will leave me so dissatisfied that I marry my job?