Hi, she says, somewhat shyly. It is a strange situation, after all. I don’t feel completely comfortable myself. Then she says, half-jokingly, I hope you’ve got some good news for me.
I take a deep breath, because a lot of what I’ve got to tell her is good. But one small, but significant part of it is very, very bad.
I’m in the lounge room of a house I lived in 10 years ago, having a coffee with 10-years-ago-me, and she wants to know what’s happened since 2004. As you would, if your future self came to visit.
So I start to fill her in. In those 10 years, my daughter has gone from being an innocent little child to a year 9 student at secondary school. That transition from cute little pre-schooler to gangly teenager had its good and bad moments as a parent.
I tell 10-years-ago-me that of course she will miss aspects of having a little child around who asks adorable questions, and thinks her mum is the bees knees. I describe instead, the teenager she will find herself with in 10 years time. This tall, self-absorbed, long-haired creature will be capable of displaying very clearly, with a roll of the eyes, her annoyance when she is bothered with pesky questions about homework and chores while she is busy texting her friends. I tell 10-years-ago-me that she has a few broken bones to look forward to as, in a few years time, her darling child will have fractured an ankle while jumping on a trampoline, fractured a wrist playing volleyball, and sustained a hairline fracture on her C7 vertebrae while…. standing up suddenly underneath a jutting-out ledge. Ouch! On the plus side, I tell her, none of the injuries turned out to be serious, something that may be nice to know a few years from now when you are in that ambulance and she’s laid out on a stretcher, in a neckbrace.
Not co-incidentally, in the past 10 years, I’ve gone from working 2 days per week while my child was a pre-schooler, to working full time. Back then, 10-years-ago-me felt stuck in an unskilled rut in the workplace, doing part-time frontline customer service jobs that were not terribly interesting or stimulating. I tell her that in the next 10 years she will change jobs twice, and that the job she will take in a few years time will initially be very challenging but will provide valuable experience, a boss prepared to promote people who work hard, and also a few new good friends.
I don’t mention that one of these new friends, someone she doesn’t even know yet, will have died before the 10 years between us is up.
She asks me about the run-down, falling-down house she is currently living in, and I tell her that she will finally make a decision on it – moving out and selling it, and moving to a house where she is now very happy. She looks like a difficult decision has been made for her. Which it has.
She asks about family and friends. I falter. It’s easier to start with friends. I name some friends that I hadn’t seen in a while in 2004 who are now completely off the radar altogether – and list others that I was out of contact with in 2004 that are now back in regular contact. I tell her which of her current close friends will still be as close in 10 years time and which ones will just be aquaintances that occasionally email and mention the idea of catching up without ever following up. I assure her that she will continue to make new friends, some through her daughter’s new school friends, and others through those new jobs looming on the horizon.
Then I get to the only topic left – family.
Mum and Dad are still going along fine in their mid 70s, I tell her. And what of her siblings? C. turned that extended holiday in Ireland into a permanent thing – she now has citizenship and a house over there. G. quit another job, or was fired, I can’t recall which, and now lives at home with the parents – not exactly a story of success there. He is currently in danger of being long-term unemployed, although, on the up side, he seems much happier than when he was working. I tell her, you’ll be really happy for F., who found the love of his life a few years ago, got married in 2012, and is now expecting his first child. And P has forged out a successful career in training staff, and recently travelled to the Phillipines for work.
I hesitate – it’s already obvious that something is wrong, because in going through the siblings in order of age, I’ve missed someone, our second-youngest brother, who comes between F and P. 10-years-ago me doesn’t let me get away with that. What about J, she asks.
Suddenly I wish I wasn’t here. The idea of travelling back in time to chat with 10-years-ago-me doesn’t seem so great any more. I look down for a long moment. Up until now, I had thought it would be good to give her the opportunity to know, ahead of time, so that she could spend more time with our little brother J, hug him harder, and tell him that she loved him. At the time that she is still living in, back in 2004, J, who was often between jobs around then, has been a regular and frequent visitor to her house, and has spent more time with her daughter than any of her other siblings have, so he is probably the sibling she is closest to at that moment in her life.
Now that there is nothing standing in between me and those awful words that will tell her what happened to J, I feel a lot less sure that knowing in advance will be a good thing at all. Surely, in fact, it will be awful! What was I thinking? Why did I think this would be a good thing to do?
But what can I say, now that I’ve skipped over any news of him, now that I’ve hesitated and made it obvious that if there is news, it is bad news? I have to tell her.
J was doing great, I say, hesitantly. He stayed in Melbourne, living with P. (In 2004 he had only recently moved to Melbourne from the country town where we grew up). For a while he worked in a car yard. Then he got the idea that he’d like to work in Aged Care, and it was like he’d found his vocation. He took up cleaning in Aged Care facilities while he studied to be a Personal Care Attendant. He got work as a PCA at a facility in the Northern Suburbs, and loved it. It was as if he’d found his calling. After about 2 years there, he applied to study nursing and got in. Around the same time he moved to a better house than that dump he’d been living in for years with P. Things were going well for him.
My rather rushed delivery comes to a sudden halt, and I look up. She’s waiting. But when I meet her eyes she looks down – now it is she who is unsure if she wants to hear what I have to say. I wait.
I could hold off on delivering this piece of news forever.
Would you prefer if I stop there? I ask.
She hesitates. I think we are both wishing that I’d never come.
No. Tell me.
My voice comes out as a whisper when I say it. He dies…..He died.
She doesn’t want to take this in. Whatever she had been anticipating, this news was more extreme. More absolute. But I’ve gone too far to back out now, so I plough on, trying to soften the blow by mentioning things it’s taken me weeks, months, or years, to take any comfort from.
He died in his sleep, at home. He’d just gone on leave from work, he was about to start a new course. If you think about it, it’s a pleasant way to die, and he was at a happy, optimistic point in his life…..
I falter again. It’s not helping, just as nothing anyone said to try and comfort me ever helped me when he first died. She looks stricken, but she doesn’t respond. She is thinking this through. She is trying to distance herself from it. Her best denial mechanism is that, after all, I can’t really be here, back from 2014, telling her things that will happen to her in the future. For her, it is currently 2004. I don’t blame her for being skeptical. But I also know that her little brother has only 7 years left to live.
*The title of this post is a lyric from the song Youth, by a UK band called Daughter.