I’ve had this thread in mind for almost a year. I might as well start it today. Long and probably maudlin.
I’m 43 and I find myself increasingly looking back on my life. I guess it’s because I’ve hit middle-age and it still seems a bit unreal. Plus, I’m now old enough to start seeing my life not just in terms of “events” but of “eras”. I could call them “chapters” but they feel bigger than that. “Parts” might be more appropriate as they cover lots of years, sometimes decades. But “chapters” is clearer. I’ll stick with that.
Chapter I : Oh, the Places You’ll Go!
Although I wasn’t a particularly cheerful kid, I had a very happy childhood. Loving parents with unspectacular but stable jobs. A small but warm and cozy house within 5 minute’s walk from the countryside. School was fun and I was a very good student.
Stable and peaceful.
I remember waking up on Christmas mornings. We would rush downstairs and, for a split second, we could catch an tantalizing, indistinct glimpse of the dinner table filled with toys through the hazy glass door. An Atari 2600 in 1982 ! We were spoiled.
I remember the cartoons and the documentaries I used to watch on Saturday afternoons at my grandmother’s, while my parents were gone shopping. And video clips. Music was already central to my life.
I remember playing football with my brother in our garden on warm Summer days. Insects buzzing by and the smell of freshly cut grass.
I remember the faint sound of a motorcycle in the distance on quiet Summer nights.
My parents had high hopes for me and my brother. Getting good marks in order to go to university and get a good job. They were strict but never pushy.
When I turned 12, they bought me a computer for my birthday (a Commodore 128 !). They wanted to make sure that I was not left behind, I guess. It turns out it was the opposite : there were only a couple of kids who had one in my class. I was ahead of the times. For once.
Three years later I spent two months in Canada as an exchange student. I was the first person in my family to take the plane. My parents were probably apprehensive of the whole thing. Still, they let me go. Make sure the kid all the advantages he can get. My stay in Canada turned out to be one of the defining moments of my life, although, sadly, I didn’t realize how lucky I had been to experience it until years later, when it was to late too really capitalize on it. Still, the memories remain.
Less than a year after I came back from Canada, I met my first girlfriend (yay !). She was probably the sweetest girl I’ve known, and really smart and pretty to boot. I’m afraid I wasn’t such a great boyfriend. I’m sorry Natty, you deserved better.
Slowly, childhood was coming to an end.
Chapter II : A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
I started University in September 1992. That was what my parents had always hoped, perhaps expected. I didn’t study what I had planned to since childhood, though. My bad grades in Physics when I was in secondary school made me rethink my life plan. I’d never be an astronomer after all. Humanities it would be. But again, I was a good student and I enjoyed my studies. I even toyed with the idea of writing a PhD. During my studies, also had the opportunity to spend one semester in London. Like Canada, that was one of the major experiences of my life.
Other girls, of course. A second long-term relationship, Carrie, that wasn’t that good. And then, a third one that was much better. Jenny and I talked of getting married. Silly talk that I’d had with my previous girlfriends, too. But with Jenny, it could plausibly have happened. We were not too young (Natty) or mismatched (Carrie).
Then, I got my first job. A modest but steady income with my own place. Freedom at last ! Interestingly, when most people start thinking, even theoretically, about settling down, it marked the beginning of my (relatively) wild bachelor phase. I had always been a “committed relationship” sort of guy, I turned into a “one-night stands” one. It wasn’t really what I was looking for but for some reason it was what was coming my way, so I accepted it without second thoughts. Then, even the one-night stands started drying up. Months turned into years and suddenly I realized that I hadn’t had a real girlfriend since 1998. Before I knew it, it was late 2001.
Chapter III : One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
I met my wife shortly after my 27th birthday. We started dating in early 2002. Things were difficult from the start. All my friends and coworkers saw the huge red flags immediately. I ignored them. They didn’t understand. She was going through a very difficult time in her life. She wasn’t even sure that she’d be allowed to stay in the country. So many bad things had happened to her in the past 18 months. Sure, she was sometimes prone to violent temper tantrums. But that would stop as soon as she got her administrative issues sorted out… as soon as she found a job… as soon as we got married… as soon as we had kids… as soon as…
I got two beautiful daughters out of the whole mess. I love them so much and I’m sure they love me, too. But I don’t think I had the opportunity to be the dad I wanted to be. I feel I was robbed of much of the joy of being a dad. When we’re by ourselves, just the three of us, it’s so different and wonderful. It happens so rarely, though. Their mother’s always hovering around them, controlling what we say and do, ridiculing the things I like and making sure that my daughters don’t grow up liking what I like. I often wonder how my daughters see me.
Chapter IV : Things Fall Apart
Turning 40 wasn’t a big deal to me. I didn’t care much. It was just a number and I felt exactly the same before and after. And yet, little by little I’ve been losing my bearings since then.
My grandmother died a few weeks after my 40th birthday. It wasn’t unexpected : she’d been a heavy smoker all her life. Actually, it’s a wonder she made it to 90. So, I accepted it. That’s life. Still, apart, from my parents and brother, she’s the only person who had always been there. She’d look after us every day before and after school, while our parents were at work. And on Saturday afternoons, too.
Then, my parents sold their house last year. The house they’d bought a few months before I was born. The house where I grew up. In way, it hit me much harder than my grandmother’s passing. Both were expected in a way but being unable to ever go back to the only place that felt reliably “mine” was weird and confusing. It’s sinking in, slowly.
And the issues mentioned in the previous chapter are now coming to a head. A divorce is not only on the table. It is highly desirable for all concerned. I don’t want to rush things. My daughters understand what’s going on but I want to make it as relatively painless and smooth for them as possible. The timing is terrible. My eldest daughter is finishing primary school this year and has her first major exam session coming up in June with her first real diploma at stake. Still, re-establishing a self-respecting father figure is necessary for them in the long-term. They’ve seen me contradicted, isolated, insulted, despised and threatened for so long. It’s time to rebuild our relationship on stable, respectful grounds.
Will the book have a happy ending? It looks unlikely for the moment but who know? Whatever happens, I can’t really complain. Millions of people have it much worse.
And you? What would be the titles of the chapters in the book of your life?