Are we there yet?
by Teresa Driscoll
The car is full to bursting point.
Two very large amplifiers, three guitars (don’t ask ), pots and pans, a new duvet in a box , television, laptop and printer. Kitchen sink …
I’d wanted Adam to come also but even as we lay everything out in the spare room, I can see it will be impossible. I’m wondering, quite frankly, if there will even be room for me and Sam. We should never have traded down from an estate.
“But will you be all right? On your own?” Adam looks so worried as we begin to load everything - me wearing my brave face.
So many journeys down the years.
I remember the first – clear as a bell. We had a row – Adam and me – about how the baby seat should be fixed. We’d practised it several times but in the end were all fingers and thumbs.
I just couldn’t believe it. Are you kidding? They're letting us take him home? On our own? Are they quite mad?
Sam was a good-looking child. Huge blue eyes and a mass of dark hair. That mattered to me during the pregnancy– the hair. I dreaded a bald baby. Why? Absolutely no idea. Ridiculously shallow to think of it now.
He is excited today. Just a tiny bit nervous too. Sam has this little tic when he’s nervous, which other people don’t notice. He slicks back his hair and nods very quickly. Funny. Sweet. Wonderful.
Six foot two now and not an ounce of fat on him. Skinny genes in his skinny jeans. Gets the hollow legs from his father.
And from me?
“Did you remember the clothes airer?”
“And the printer? We can probably use the uni library. It might even be cheaper. Did you know that printer ink is more expensive than champagne?”
I look at him. This boy who is my son and who is leaving home. I look at him and I cannot quite believe it. All impatience – wanting to get going.
Just like his arrival – four weeks early which caught us all out.
They put him in a special unit. SCABU they call it – like some outer space, other world acronym. Special. Care. Baby. Unit.
Best not to know.
They lie there, all the little SCABU babies, in their little bonnets with their pulsing red chicken flesh. Veins much too close to the surface. No fat on the bones.
And you pray, even if you do not believe in anything.
You pray every day. Every hour. Every minute. Because there isn’t much else to do, quite frankly, apart from listening to the bleep of all those monitors.
“Did you remember the wok?”
“Look – will you just get in the car, Sam. We need to get on the road.”
“Hang on. I think I’ve forgotten my leads.”
“For the second amp.”
“I thought I asked you to do a list.”
“Oh, for goodness sake – mother. Lists are for the olds.”
There will be a fight over the music we play on the journey. Correction. I will probably just this once give in and let him choose. He likes his music too loud and too “alternative” but as Adam keeps reminding me, there will be plenty of time now for music with tunes.
For the last month or so Sam has been diluting every potential row with the opener “well, you won’t have to put up with it for much longer – will you?”
Put up with him?
I am rather tired of the hot stabbing behind my eyes these past weeks. The pulling myself up. All the king’s horses and all the brave faces.
I have put two tissues in my pocket and when the time comes will do my very best to pretend that there is something in my eye.
Adam should be coming too. I see now that it was a terrible mistake to say yes to the conference and yes to all this musical equipment. We should have said no to the electric guitars. Or insisted he take just the one. I mean – does he really need the bass and the acoustic as well?
Oh goodness. Adam?
“Are we off, then?”
It is five hours to the university according to the online map. I don’t like sat navs. Sam says we are dinosaurs – laughs at us as we fiddle with our glasses and our mobile phones. But I have enough people barking orders at me at work, thank you very much, without a sat nav dictator doing the same.
And now we are on the road and I am smiling as he chitter chatters away.
We have always been at our best in the car – me and Sam. Talking sideways. It is the only time I seem to feel completely in control of things. At the wheel with him right there by my side. In his seat belt.
Oh – go on; laugh at me if you must. But you have to understand that every single step of independence has been such a struggle for me. You don’t need to be Freud. I get it. I know that I am overprotective. I know that I have found it hard to let go and to trust and to believe.
First there were the blessed school trips which started way back in primary school – when they were all much too young. Three days and nights away? Adam and I had a terrible fight. In the end I gave in but I didn’t sleep. Not a wink for three nights.
Nine-year-olds in caravans by the seaside? I mean – what if one of them had climbed out of a window and gone walkabouts.
“No one is climbing out of any windows, Sarah. For heaven’s sake. There is a teacher in each caravan.”
Adam gets so exasperated over my fussing.
I always say that people would understand better if they had been there. Every day. Every night.
In SCABU .
You never quite let go of it, you see. All those alarms going off and people rushing about and asking you to “step back please”. If you had held your breath for as long as I did through every single crisis in Scabu – while the little babies held their blessed breaths too and we all screamed silently in our heads.
Breathe, little baby. Will you just please, breathe.
“Are you all right, mum?”
“Course, love. Fine.”
“You’re not going to go all funny on me?”
He is smiling and I am so glad we went with the braces. Adam says that is what he gets from me. The smile.
I punch his shoulder, shaking my head and pulling a joke face. We stop for lunch at a burger bar and it amazes me still how much he can eat. Also – how fast.
“You’ll get indigestion, Sam.”
He raises his eyebrows and pulls his own comedy face and I wonder if all my friends are right. That he will learn so very much now. Away.
And then, two hours later, as we turn finally into the city centre, he is frowning - staring at the map.
“So – are we there yet? Is this it?”
Are we there yet?
I can hear the echo of his voice in the back of the car – with his little fishing rod across his lap. On the way to Cornwall. Eight years old? All smiles and hopes and dreams and yes - impatience.
Holidays were the times I worried most about him being an only. I would watch other families on the beach and at the fun parks. Adam would always make this extra special effort to do everything with Sam - the rollercoasters and any rides or treats which required partners. Pairs. But we would always watch the brothers and the sisters being strapped into seats, side by side, and get this pang.
One mile more and we park up in the special car park signposted for parents and new arrivals for fresher’s week and he finally turns to look at me.
Are we there yet?
And then – a surprise. I was so sure that he would rush out. Mr impatience. But he stops suddenly very still for a moment and he does “the lean”.
It was this silly something I started when he was very small. “The lean”. When he was nervous or tense or cross, slicking back his hair and nodding too much I would say nothing –instead leaning in so that our foreheads were just touching.
And the silent touch and connection would somehow calm him so much better than words. And that is what he doing now to comfort me. And I realise that it is the first time he has offered it back.
And I am thinking for some reason, eyes closed, of all that yomping. All those Duke of Edinburgh medals and challenges with camping and canoeing that I always imagined he took to prove something to himself but which I am thinking now were to prove something to someone else.
I should say something out loud. Thank you, probably. But I daren’t try speech.
Are we there yet?
An echo of his voice on his tenth birthday asking me straight why he never had a brother or a sister.
I told him a part of the truth. That we tried.
I didn’t tell him about the one we lost at ten weeks. Not his sadness. Not fair to burden him with that.
Are we there yet?
I remember the asthma scares. The five days back in hospital when he was just six. Another acronym. HDU. High dependency unit.
And now my phone is bleeping with a text.
“I suppose you’re going to need your glasses to read that?” He pulls back finally to open his door and I poke out my tongue, embarrassed that he is right - rummaging in my handbag for the case.
The text is from Adam. He’s left the conference early and has caught the train. He will get a taxi and will meet me at the hotel, after I’ve finished the goodbyes. Thought I might need a shoulder. Should never have let me go on my own.
“What is it?”
“Just your dad being your dad. He’s joining me later. At the hotel.”
“That’s good. I’m glad. Say hi.”
“I will. He sends a hug.”
A second text says he has booked us a nice dinner. Will make sure they have cheesecake. And tissues.
And then I look back at my son properly.
Are we there yet?
So grown up and so strong now - with his duvet box in one hand and an amplifier in the other – with this big, broad smile. My smile. Mr Duke of Edinburgh gold. And I can suddenly hear it. The answer – now a whisper in my head.
Yes we are, Sam.
And it makes me so proud and excited and terribly, terribly sad all at the same time.
Yes we are, my darling boy.
We are there now.