Life

Nuala McCann: How a wheel turns full circle, but how the love stays the same

On a good day, my son lets me stroke the hair as it grows back, soft as brushed velvet under my hands, the hard bone of his skull. It brings me back to the cold wet slap of gel on my pregnant belly, the whoosh and whoop of the heartbeat monitor and the tiny shape on the fuzzy screen – waving from a far planet

Our son's shaved head reminds me of the cast from the original Trainspotting... as long as he is not the guy who hauls himself up out of the stinking toilet

OUR son is channelling his inner Shaolin monk. His hair is shaved up tight. He is not wearing bright orange. It's just the no-hair thing.

In the bathroom, father and son are locked in a conspiracy – the buzz of the clippers, the shorn hair in a wastebasket... somewhere in an envelope there are soft wisps of baby hair from 20 years ago.

He emerges fashionable... gentle eyes jar with the shaven look.

Remember the doe-eyed black baby from the side of the charity box on the classroom windowsill? Remember that Doctor Who striding forth in his Doc Martens?

But also remember the cast from the original Trainspotting... as long as our son is not the guy who hauls himself up out of the stinking toilet.

Shaven and shorn is in. It is his hair to wear or not wear as he will. He dips his head like a small shy cat as I go past. No namby pamby patting here.

He has his style, I have mine. Once it was fake forget-me-nots; a gold headband; tobacco red rust dye, a slash of green eye shadow across the cheeks – war paint make-up like Adam Ant.

At night, I kiss his father and skirt the seat where our son lies sprawled. Long legs dangle from one end, a black-socked foot to catch on my way past. I tweak his toe to say goodnight.

And on a good day, he lets me stroke the hair as it grows back, soft as brushed velvet under my hands, the hard bone of his skull.

It brings me back to the cold wet slap of gel on my pregnant belly, the whoosh and whoop of the heartbeat monitor and the tiny shape on the fuzzy screen – waving from a far planet.

Months later, we turned on the hoover and hoiked up the cooker fan to recreate that familiar womb landscape of whoop and whoosh – to soothe our baby to sleep.

Then, we were terrified. His skull was thin as eggshell, the pulse beat softly on the fontanelle, the soft tick tick of a gold pocket watch.

But life makes bones grow stronger, toughens us up.

And yet.

The year is on the turn, the days are getting shorter and now, in the early mornings we fumble in the dark for the light switch.

Out in the garden, the leaves are russet and orange as my once tobacco dyed hair.

And I am making lists of autumn-planted bulbs. My dreams fill up with large clumps of Madonna lilies; small fists of golden daffodils, the drooping heads of rare snowdrops.

The evenings are drawing in and we are shorn and in mourning, but In February those snowdrops will push green noses out of the soil, small white stars of hope.

It is the fleetingness of life that shocks you – from one moment to the next, we do not know. We build our lives on year planners and diaries and apps that mark out days and hours and meetings. We keep journals to ward off the uncertainty of it all.

No-one knows when it might be snatched away.

Each year when I hang up the new calendar, mark in birthdays, write OIL ORDERED; HOLIDAY ITALY; DENTIST CHECK-UP; I wonder about the unplanned, the unexpected.

On the “happy tape” we kept for long car journeys when our son was small, John Lennon sings Beautiful Boy and how life is what happens to you when you're busy making other plans.

The priest at the altar on our wedding day whispers: “Enjoy every minute of this day because it will fly past and be over before you know it.”

How the years have rolled by.

I watch a grown-up son lead his frail father to the bathroom to shave him. I cradle my mother's head whilst I'm washing her hair and think how she once washed mine and how a wheel turns full circle, but how the love stays the same.

Outside, the birds swoop and swirl and feel the tug of warmer climes.

Our robin flings dirt everywhere as he pecks through the overgrown hanging basket.

The little cat who has adopted us, meows at the door to be let in, then sneaks out the back to keep a beady eye on the robin.

The sunlight pales on the garden, the days fade early. And all we have our tender moments now.

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