My mum’s family are homebirds. At one point there were four generations living under one roof at Nan’s house. My mum and I were the only women in the family not living within a 10-mile radius, and we were only an hour down the motorway.
I was never like that: the black sheep who aged ten went to Selfridges to see Santa and declared that London was where she’d be as a grown-up. Unless of course I was whisked away to Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches. The list got longer as I did: New York, Buenos Aires, Barcelona. I planned to never stop moving.
My mum encouraged me. She and Dad had worked in Qatar for a year when I was three and we travelled abroad twice a year until her MS made flying too difficult. Even then, we made a 13-hour train journey to the south of France, with oxygen and carers in tow, every year until she died. People thought we were mad. Mum thought they were boring.
At 18, the reality of my plans hit me. When I left home, I’d have to leave Mum. By then Dad had gone and Mum’s future was precarious: it might be decades, it might also be months. Would she be OK? Should I stay? Was I a terrible daughter for wanting to leave? I struggled with these questions before every departure: when I left for my gap year, went off to uni, even when I returned to London after my weekly visit to see her.
I would offer to stay, I’d intend to, but in hindsight, my desires were always transparent; you don’t ask these things, you do them. Mum was steadfast: I couldn’t stay in Redhill, I’d be bored. I should live my life. I always knew there must have been a part of her that wished the thing I dreamed of was to stay, but perhaps, as the humanists once said, love is a desire for a person to be nothing other than themselves.
I trusted her to tell me when she needed me and I returned for weeks and months through times that were tricky, but she never let those months turn to years. She’d get better and urge me back to London. She liked the stories, the letters I sent and the gossip we shared. If I’d never moved, those stories would have changed. I wouldn’t have learned to find my way around foreign cities, fallen in love over late night chats in university halls, or met a best friend on the night bus home. I’d have been a different person.
Most of all, the way Mum and I were would have changed. She inspired people because she never let MS get the better of her. It never defined her and it never characterised our relationship. She did the things that mothers do: she nagged me, raised her eyebrows at my ‘new look’ and reminded me to get the car insured. Sometimes her carers were the conduit but she was always the force.
If I’d stayed those extra eight years, that dynamic might have changed. Perhaps I’d have become the carer, the boundaries been blurred, the lightness weighed down. We’d have had more time, but perhaps too much; savoured weekends would have been made into the everyday. And although my guilt might have lessened, hers could have grown—we were brought up Catholic, there was no way around it.
I spent a lot of time wishing I was the homebird. I’ll never know if I did the right thing, but I do know we had fun the way it was.
This is a piece of writing I wrote for Oh Comely magazine last year. It was published in issue five.