The Sunday I watched my father zipped into a body bag and removed from the living room didn’t seem an obvious point at which there would be a change in the relationship I’d witnessed him have with my mother.
That morning, he would have been listening to Brahms or Beethoven, maybe Grieg and watching the birds on the feeders through the French doors that opened onto the chaotic but carefully curated garden.
When I was told that my dog, just a few months old at the time, had been born with numerous ocular abnormalities that would probably mean she’d spend her life in near darkness, and then again recently, at age six that her immovable lameness was the result of early onset osteoarthritis, it seemed like the end of a relationship I’d anticipated and then come to enjoy rather than the beginning of one I was only in the foothills of discovering.
One Christmas, more than a decade ago, I met up with Martin, my oldest friend, estranged from me through the alcoholism I had no knowledge of through all of those years, and he told me he’d been diagnosed with cancer and had to stop drinking if he wanted a life-saving operation. I imagined it might be the last time I’d see him rather than the advent of a new and in many ways more rewarding union.
These seemingly disparate events converged in my mind this week when, while the dog lay on the physio’s mat being gently manipulated whilst I fed her a constant stream of pacifying treats that she didn’t really need, the therapist said to me,
“You must be glad that you’ve got her rather than someone else who wouldn’t love her so much.”
It’s easy to think about the ways in which adversity damages relationships and changes them in ways that weaken their muscles and ligaments, and ignore what springs up in their place.
When my father died, the grief I saw in my mother was a shock.
How could this woman who had spent my entire life as one half of a constant shouting match miss the source of her exasperation now that he was dead?
I learned something important about the foundation of relationships through watching my mother grieve, but it was still hard not to feel sad at all the years wasted through an inability to put aside differences and recognise that there were depths to their love that I certainly couldn’t see, and seemed obscured to them too.
In the early years of Martin’s recovery, I too was going through an emotional renaissance.
We couldn’t go to the pub together anymore so we met for coffee and talked in a way that most men never do and we certainly never had.
In those few months, I learned more about my friend than I had in the forty previous years. Grief, pain, loss and a kind of redemption opened both of us up to the rawness of our own vulnerabilities.
The greatest hits from the past were still playing but some new material had been released of surprising and powerful quality.
I’ve often teased him that he’s ruined all the years we could have grown old drinking in pubs together by selfishly becoming an alcoholic.
Then I found that I’d lost my own enthusiasm for drinking and that his addiction and sustained recovery had inadvertently changed my life for the better as well.
On the podcast a few months ago I made the lofty claim that there is no situation that cannot be reframed in order to find some sort of mitigation.
“What about death?” Martin asked.
“Well, if you’re sad when someone dies you must have had the joy of a wonderful relationship with them while they were living.”
A change in a relationship because of some sort of adversity is a kind of death. What was there is gone and something new must take its place.
I saw the promise of it in the decline of my father and the softening in the relationship he had with my mother, but it always felt like too little and far too late.
Martin and I went to a gig in London a few weeks ago. I took a photo outside Alexandra Palace across the city as the light was fading grateful that I’d had the chance of a second relationship with him rather than only a truncated first.
Later, rushing to catch the last train I made him run down the hill to the station and laughed while he hobbled behind on his dodgy knees. Seeing something funny in adversity was always the foundation of our bond.
It was just like it might have been forty years ago, except that his knees would have worked better, we both would have been pissed, and we would never have known one another anything like as well as we do now.
My dog has dodgy knees too, and ankles, and she can’t walk as far as she once could or chase after a ball. But she’s curled up on the bottom of my bed snoring peacefully right now and, whilst it won’t be like it was, it’s really no worse for being different.