For most of us, most of the time, life unfolds slowly. It doesn’t stand still, although it may seem that way at times. People come and go, we change jobs, opportunities arise, we branch out in new directions; and usually these are either choices we make ourselves or we have some foreknowledge of the impending change and are able to adjust to it so that, when it happens, the transition is relatively smooth.
Then there are other times, when the change is significant, and our lives are turned upside down. My retirement from work, for example, loomed ahead as a very significant change in my life. It was a choice I made. I knew that it was going to happen and I had control over precisely when it happened. Yet, for some reason, I did little to plan for it. My own fault; no one to blame but myself; perhaps I was in denial, head in the sand; but after more than 40 years of going to work, day after day, year after year, routinely and with a high degree of certainty, I eventually arrived at my last day (at work), knowing that, thereafter, the world I had known would continue without me; and I would have to find something else to occupy my time, someone else with whom to communicate, some other way of giving purpose to my existence. And I had nothing more in mind than the vague idea that I’d like to revive my interests in photography and writing. I felt as though I were standing at the brink of an infinite void, anxious and uncertain, but also a little excited by the prospect.
Sadly, however, the decision about my immediate future had already been made. My mother had always been a staunchly independent woman. In the Scots language, she might have been described as thrawn. Despite the extreme difficulty she had in walking, and despite also being legally blind, she lived alone and looked after herself. I helped as best I could by doing her shopping for her, paying her bills, assisting her with her correspondence, taking her to appointments and making sure her medication was in order, and of course visiting her as often as work and other family commitments would permit (usually five times each week); but in all other respects she was self-sufficient; and determined to stay that way. Then, just three weeks after I retired from work, her health took a turn for the worse and began what turned out to be its final descent.
The rapidity of her decline and the uncertainty of where it would lead, bewildered her; and decisions that had to be made she delegated to me because the enormity of the considerations and their probable consequences was too much for her to contemplate. She trusted me to make the right decision; but most of the time I just felt helpless; and hopelessly inadequate. I was not able to arrest the frailty that seemed to be consuming her; nor could I help her understand why this should be happening to her because to me also, it seemed morally unjust. Even after she had been transferred from hospital to a nursing home, she would talk indefatigably of the time to come when she could go home to her own place, where she had her own things, where she was in command, could make her own decisions and not be tormented by those poor souls (as she called them) in the nursing home who suffered from dementia and couldn’t control themselves. But everyone else knew that she would never be able to return.
Ironically, when her journey finally came to an end after a sudden and catastrophic illness exactly one year later, she passed away in a hospital room that overlooked her beloved apartment; only her eyesight was too weak to let her see it.
When it was all over and she had been laid to rest, I found myself standing before the void for a second time, uncertain as to what the future held for me. Having witnessed the disintegration of my mother, my friend, my counsellor and confidant, photography and writing seemed so trivial – I couldn’t bring myself to engage with either of them. But I had nothing else. The past, and the apparent injustice of what had just happened, fogged my vision. Then, once again the mists cleared, the void disappeared and the path forward materialised before my eyes.
My son was about to finish high school and I was plunged into a world of tertiary education programs and university open days, then life-defining decisions followed by admissions applications and enrolment formalities. When his classes ended and exams were over, he was at home all day, every day. My spare time filled up, my need for companionship was satisfied, only my sense of purpose was lacking; that is, until he decided to undertake two-months of tennis training – in Spain no less – and I was given the task of organising it. Tennis was, and is, his true passion. His objective was to study in the United States on a tennis scholarship; and the two months of training in Spain was intended to make up for the partial neglect his tennis had suffered during his final year of high school. Then, just when the Spain trip was beginning to take shape, he was invited to study at a US University and join their tennis team; so our travel arrangements had to be revamped to include a visit to the US en route from Spain back to Australia.
We travelled to Spain together and if my mother’s final year had been the lowest point of my life, the journey to Barcelona with my son, and the time we spent there together, was undoubtedly one of the highest. Whether exploring that beautiful city together or watching him training at the Academy, it was an unrivalled joy, only moderated by the sadness I felt on the day I left to return to Australia.
Barcelona had inspired me to take photographs again. And although I was sad to leave my son alone at the Academy, I was also looking forward to having time to spend in Sydney, pursuing my own interests. But after only a few weeks, a butterfly flapped its wings in Tokyo causing a volcano to erupt in Iceland, potentially throwing our travel plans, along with those of many thousands of others, into complete chaos. I spent the next few weeks trying to find alternate routes for me to return to Barcelona and for us, or failing that for my son alone, to get to the US. We had a 2-day window in which to visit the university and meet with the tennis coach and for a while it was looking doubtful that we would be able to make it. Then, just three days before I was due to fly back to Spain, the skies over Europe opened up and we were able to complete our journey as planned.
On the day of my return to Barcelona there was a lump in my throat as I walked the long narrow country lane that leads from Route C31 to the gates of the Academy. Strangely, I felt as though I were coming home. There were over thirty tennis courts ahead of me and I scoured each near and distant one of them looking for a familiar face. I followed the path that lead between the courts to where he had been training when I had left six weeks earlier; and still could not see him. One of the coaches waved to me and shouted, “Welcome back!” and I felt exhilarated. Then out of the corner of my eye I caught sight of a figure tossing his racquet to the ground and running from another court towards me. The joy I felt then is indescribable.
Two days later, we left the Academy for the last time. I’m not sure which of us was more reluctant to leave. It must have taken us an hour to go around and say goodbye to the coaches, to the support staff and to the students whom he had befriended during his two-month stay. There was a restring to collect from the Pro Shop and mementos to buy; but the memories that he, in particular, took away with him are infinitely more valuable than any material thing he bought. He told me, it had been the best experience of his life; and I felt so privileged, and so very happy, to have been a part of it.
The trip back to Australia via the US comprised 6 flights and 4 connections. We had often joked about competing together in the reality TV program called The Amazing Race and our journey felt somewhat like that in the beginning. Our early morning flight from Barcelona was delayed for both take-off and landing and we had a frantic dash to change terminals and complete passport control and security in Frankfurt in the little time that remained. But it all came together smoothly in the end and we made all our connections, did everything we had gone to the States to do and got home safely, without incident but with our heads full of memories and shared experiences.
In the three months since our return we have spent a lot of time together. There has been physical training, tennis training, practice matches and competitions to attend. We’ve seen some great (and some not so great) movies. We watched the French Open (tennis), Wimbledon and The World Cup (soccer) on TV; and there were the formalities of accepting the offer to study at the US university, renewing his passport, meeting the US medical requirements for students, acquiring his student visa (what a performance that was!) and getting him kitted out for 4 years abroad. And besides that, we were just hanging out together, sometimes going places, sometimes doing stuff, sometimes just talking.
Two weeks ago I watched his training session and was impressed how well the things that he and his coach had been working on were coming together. And then it hit me. Since he had started playing tennis competitively, I had accompanied him to almost all of his training sessions, competitions and practice matches. Even when my mother was still alive, I had managed to juggle my son’s tennis commitments with our visits to see her. I had been there to witness his triumphs; I had been there console him when he lost; and I had been there to motivate him when he felt like giving up. We’d discussed tactics and strategy on the way to matches; and analysed outcomes and learned lessons on the way back home. We’d talked about his strengths and weaknesses; talked about physical fitness and match psychology; talked about court surfaces and styles of play; talked about the pros and cons of various racquets and string tensions and how the ambient temperature can affect the flight of the ball. In fact, we must have talked about every facet of the sport at one time or another. And when we weren’t talking about his tennis we’d be talking about the tour events and the tour players, and their strengths and weaknesses. And when all this flashed through my mind I realised that his tennis had become as much a part of my life as it was his; but in a little less than two weeks it would all come to a sudden end for me and I wouldn’t be able to see him train and I wouldn’t be able to see him play and I wouldn’t have the chance to see him evolve into the player he is destined to become; and I realised that I would no longer be able to play an active part in his life; that I would no longer be needed.
James Ellroy, the American crime writer, once described himself as being on the “back nine of life”; and if that is the case, I guess you could say I can already see the clubhouse. And I think it was Bob Dylan who said that we eventually reach a point in our lives when we dream more for our children than we do for ourselves. I still have dreams for myself. I guess I always will, as long as I have breath. But now that I can see the clubhouse, my own dreams seem much less important when compared with those of my son. And if I had to choose which of us could realise our dreams, there is no doubt in my mind what the decision would be.
So, now I stand, once more on the brink of the void, with no idea of what lies ahead. Will something come along unexpectedly to occupy me, just as it had done when I retired from work and later when my mother passed away? Or, will the void swallow me up, never to be seen or heard of again? It’s too soon to tell. All I can think about at the moment is my son, on that plane, and what lies ahead for him.
I hope he is safe. I hope he works hard, plays well and above all, has fun. And I pray that I have done enough to prepare him for this.
Footnote: Last Friday we were watching television together when the station broadcast a request for candidates to take part in the first ever Australian edition of The Amazing Race. We looked at each other for a moment, then realised that it wasn’t going to happen.