Allow me to digress straight away. When my eldest child was a toddler, he loved a programme called ‘Maggie and the Ferocious Beast’. As far as I was concerned, there was no discernible reason for anyone, let alone a child, to give this so-called entertainment the time of day. Yet, I can still recall one particular episode where Hamilton, a cleanliness obsessed pig, proclaims his love for his house. It’s a cardboard box. But, like he sings, “It may be a box. But it’s home to me.”
And this is how I feel about this particular pair of socks. A pair of old, holey socks. These socks are now just over twenty-five years old. They were the last Christmas present my aunty bought for me before she died, roughly five months later. I’ve had these socks longer than I had her as an aunty. And I can’t bear to part with them. “They may be socks. But they mean the world to me.”
I’d experienced loss in my life before the age of 21, the age I was when she died. An absent grandfather who I’d apparently only ever met as a baby. I recall spending evenings in a hospital foyer, munching on Poppets as my mam visited her estranged father. I associate him with standing outside in the cold, waiting for the bus, then sitting alone in a hospital waiting area, waiting for my mam. He wasn’t a loss. His death barely troubled my status quo. My godmother had died earlier the same year. I have fonder memories of her. I knew she’d been ill and then one day I was told she was gone. And I just accepted it because no longer seeing this elderly lady who visited a few times a year did not impact on my life.
So, up until the early days of my third decade, I’d been protected from real loss. And up until the present day, I’ve only experienced it once – my dear aunty.
She was not only my aunty. She was my godmother, friend, confidant. The only family member, apart from my own parents, who I could call family. The only family member who I could drop in on unannounced. The only family member I wanted to see when I had important news.
Bad things weren’t meant to happen to me. For no particular reason but that I had decided that was the way my life would be. But, in the summer before I started my final year at university, I was home and she phoned. She wouldn’t tell me what she wanted. She just wanted to speak to my mam, her sister. She wouldn’t leave a message. And when she did phone back, my mam took the call upstairs in her bedroom, away from me. Neither of them wanted to tell me that she had cancer.
But it would be ok, because, like I said, bad things didn’t happen to me. Any loss of family members up until now had been quantifiable. My grandfather showed no interest in me. I was too young to understand my godmother’s passing. I barely knew either of them.
My loss took nine months to happen, but I barely saw it coming. I was away, protected from test results, busy revising for finals, oblivious to the slow, steady decline others were witnessing. Always hopeful, eternally optimistic, forever praying. This was not the natural order. She was still young. She was not going to die.
But she did.
It came to be that I could no longer be protected. A bad thing was going to happen. Luckily, or unluckily, I was home from university to shop for a dress for an upcoming wedding as her final day grew closer. Looking back, the signs were there. I couldn’t go and see her in hospital because it was someone else’s turn. Moving away from me to have hushed conversations with friends. Taking phone calls again in distant rooms. But it still had to be laid bare. I had to be told the truth, exams or no exams. And the time came.
She had fought as much as she could. They’d given her all possible treatments, but nothing had worked. Naively I thought she would have months, maybe years. Time to find alternative treatments. The doctors wouldn’t let her die. She was only 42 and her youngest child was 9. Somebody would do something. My dad told me it was a matter of weeks. By the next morning, it had become hours and we were on our way to hospital to say goodbye.
Once there, we were encouraged by nurses to go and talk to her. They reassured us that she looked just like she was sleeping; there was nothing to fear. Except the fear of looking at someone you loved and know they were dying. And the 21-year-old me was unprepared. At some point in the afternoon, after refusing a couple of times, I stole away to say my goodbyes. I stood at the door with my hand on the handle, but nothing could me make me turn it. I knew it would be the last time I would see her. I knew it would be the last time I would talk to her. But she was unconscious so she wouldn’t see me, she wouldn’t talk to me and who knows if she would hear me. But, if I didn’t turn that handle, it wouldn’t be the last time. The last time would be only a few weeks earlier. She was sat smiling in her summer house. I’d just dropped by to see if she needed anything. We made plans for her to come up to Edinburgh that summer. She would stay in my flat and I would show her the sights. If I didn’t go into that room, I would always have her smiling optimism as my enduring memory of her and, in some ways, I’m thankful I didn’t turn the handle.
The loss of her would attack me unexpectedly. Walking home from a night out, watching a TV programme, sitting at my cousin’s wedding reception. The grief would attack me, invade my senses, control my thoughts then leave me just as quickly, not before reminding me what was no longer in my life. But, like the cliches say, time did heal, things did get better. I had learnt to have lost. However, there is always ‘what could have been?’ Watching her young children grow up motherless, sometimes I felt I didn’t have the right to grieve. Only they had the right. Plus, there was the guilt that it would always be the case that I knew her for longer than they ever would.
I was married on what would have been her 49th birthday. This was no coincidence. It was fate. She couldn’t be there, but she would be remembered. The day her life began and the day my married life began are now intrinsically entwined. I think this may have been the last time I shed tears for her. Looking at her gravestone the day before my wedding instead of looking at her beautiful face on the day of my wedding overwhelmed me once again and any excitement I should have been experiencing about my upcoming nuptials was diluted by the trickling teardrops, having been reminded of how bloody unfair life can be.
So, I can’t bear to part with my green, holey socks. They are one of my last connections to her, along with the mini clogs she bought me in Amsterdam or the flower necklace she fetched back from a different adventure. To lose them would be like losing a link to her. And I don’t want to lose anymore. I have learnt to lose, but it’s not a lesson I want to repeat.